I am a narcissist. So are you. That’s a good thing, according to Elizabeth Lunbeck, the author of The Americanization of Narcissism. Why? Because narcissism helps us develop creativity and empathy and is most certainly where we develop ambition. Lunbeck takes her claim further: our cultural finger-wagging over the supposed rise of narcissism in American society involves a misplaced emphasis on a misused term. Leave narcissism for the psychoanalysts, in other words, and don’t be too worried if you think you’re the bee’s knees now and then.
Lunbeck, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, told The New Republic last year that she was on a “mission to rescue the concept of narcissism.” Her book-long effort won the 2015 Courage to Dream Book Prize of the American Psychoanalytic Association and also garnered a surprising amount of attention in mainstream cultural journals. Most of these focused less on the history of psychoanalysis, of which there is much in the book, and more on the ways in which Lunbeck deals with narcissism as a favorite social sin of the jeremiads of the culture wars. In fact, Lunbeck suggests, narcissism shouldn’t even be a term of social critique—but a term used by psychoanalysts. And we shouldn’t be so harsh on narcissists. They’re what make America work.
One of Lunbeck’s bêtes noires is Christopher Lasch (d. 1994), the author of the best-selling 1978 The Culture of Narcissism. Lasch’s is a name less often heard these days, though he was once one of the nation’s most prolific and idiosyncratic cultural critics, combining an intellectual Marxist approach with a strong cultural conservativism. In The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch blasted American culture for its obsession with external validation of the individual person through wealth, consumerism, sexual libertinism and an instant gratification. Lasch was no psychologist—he used narcissism to describe behaviors he saw as a departure from the American ideal of a self-possessed adult (well, a man), leading ironically not to a more fulfilled person but to a radically diminished one, the “minimal self.”
Lunbeck’s takedown of Lasch and others centers on the insidious way that narcissism departed from its proper locus, psychoanalysis, and became a term of cultural critique. She also criticizes other misuses of the term, including the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Given to college students yearly to predict narcissistic behavior, it has shown a shocking rise in such tendencies in the past three decades. Lunbeck argues, however, that the test shows higher self-esteem and assertiveness as much as it shows pathological levels of narcissism, because the questions are poorly phrased. Is it really so awful, she asks, for a young person to prefer “I think I am a special person” to “I am no better or worse than most people”?
Newcomers to this subject will find intriguing historical and cultural insights throughout. For example, Lunbeck notes that the golden age of psychoanalysis is not our current era, but the late 1940s and the 1950s. Further, she identifies as a trope of psychoanalysts of that era the notion that Americans were rudderless and confused. So much for the myth of contented suburbia and “Leave It To Beaver.” She also shows deftly that much of our talk about female narcissism—from Freud onward—is actually a fairly flimsy screen for bigoted dismissals of women.
Lunbeck is right—to a degree. Narcissism is not always pathological, and the world works in many ways because of it. As an editor at a publishing house I can attest that there is no greater frustration than the humble writer who wants no accolades, appearances or reviews. “In this industry,” I tell authors, “‘self-promoter’ is a compliment.” I am myself no different—after all, let us not pretend that within hours of publication of this review I will not post a link to Facebook, Twitter and possibly Tinder as well.
Enough about me: so narcissistic! A better example is Thomas Merton. A psychoanalyst told Merton in 1956 that “you like to be famous, you want to be a big shot… Megalomania and narcissism are your big trends.” Not the personality needed to be an anonymous monk in a cloister, as more than one exasperated abbot discovered; but was it actually his narcissism that spurred him to transcend his identity as Brother Louis and become Thomas Merton? To quote from the aforementioned Facebook, it’s complicated.
The problem with Lunbeck’s central thesis is that people like Merton are the exception, not the rule. It might be true that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and others all benefited from their narcissistic qualities, but that doesn’t portend good news for the culture at large. Most of us don’t use our “good kind of narcissism” to become great spiritual writers, or to found Facebook, or to promote a best-selling book. Most of us simply think we’re entitled to a lot of things we’re not. Ask any teacher about his or her inbox after posting grades and you’ll find out how many American students suffer from the perception that they’re not getting what they deserve.
The facile way out is to complain about selfie sticks and social media without putting much skin in the game. But narcissism also rears its ugly head in unexpected ways. For those readers who work in Catholic education, let me ask you this: how often do the terms of Ignatian spirituality—discernment of spirits, consolation, desolation—become facile covers for “God is calling me to be more assertive about my needs” or “I Am A Very Important Person And My Feelings Can’t Be Wrong”? The latter sounds a lot like “I think I am a special person,” except with theological justification—which, history tells us, ends very, very badly.
During a former life as a professor, I used to ask my students to write a spiritual memoir. It was always an edifying exercise for me, as it was always the best thing a student ever wrote. Every now and then, though, a phrase would stick in my craw: “I then realized why God had put that person in my life: to teach me X.”
So many questions. To ask two: “What if teaching you X had caused that person pain?” Or, “What if that person learned nothing?” In 1992, Patrick Keifert expressed this point very clearly in his book Welcoming the Stranger: “I must approach the world of another’s meaning with a willingness to learn, to be taught, to recognize the other precisely as other, not to reduce that one to an experience, a moment in my education or maturation.” No one, it should go without saying, is put into any of our lives to teach us a lesson. And yet—how many times has each of us said that, heard that, thought that?
In the end, Lunbeck may be correct that narcissism as a term should be restricted to psychoanalysis. But that doesn’t mean we’ve banished a cultural sickness we used to call by exactly that name. That sickness seems alive and well, and possibly burgeoning. Perhaps we just need another name for it.